On The Aisle
By Tony Macklin
“A Prophet” begins as a gritty prison film and becomes an arresting gangster saga. Michael Corleone has nothing on Malik El Djebena. Michael only had to deal with the Italian families and the Jewish mafia. Malik (Tahar Rahim) has to cope with the Corsicans, the blacks and the Arabs — in and out of prison.
Prison — and beyond — is a balkanized world with hostile groups fighting for turf. The French prison is controlled by an old, brutal Corsican prisoner, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who has the outside connections that enable him to control the prison authorities.
Malik, a 19-year-old uneducated Arab Frenchman, is incarcerated in the prison to serve a six-year sentence. He has no discernible family or friends. He is without protection and immediately gets mugged for his sneakers. He is totally vulnerable.
Cesar orders the young man to commit a murder. It’s kill or be killed. Malik has no choice but to be pragmatic. His pragmatism is desperate and messy.
From his initial blundering actions, Malik evolves. His greatest relationship to Michael Corleone is resourcefulness. He listens and takes advantage of his opportunities. He grows from “dirty Arab” to heights unforeseen.
Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard has made a gripping 150-minute ordeal. If you have an aversion to a razor blade in the mouth or a spoon in the eye, be forewarned. But “A Prophet” is ordeal as entertainment. It revivifies the crime genre.
Audiard is well served by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, production designer Michel Barthelemy and art director Etienne Rohde. They create a prison environment that is bleak, drab, claustrophobic and maze-like.
When Malik is out of prison on daylong furloughs, he experiences a graphic, contrasting world of light, surf and clouds.
Audiard has clever details such as Malik sticking out his tongue at airport security as he did with prison security. Or sand in a shoe, which is a reminder of Malik’s short freedom at the beach.
In the movie’s last sequence when Malik makes a slight gesture with his hand, you know he’s in control. The Balkans are in line behind him. It’s a subtle and profound moment.
Tahar Rahim — a Jon Seda look-a-like — brilliantly captures the tense and wary openness of Malik. When Malik is learning to write in prison, he is taught the pronunciation of the word “canard.” Perhaps he becomes more canard than prophet.
Malik may be prophet for the new fragmented world, but he’s more profit than prophet. He’s after the big bucks — pun intended, you have to see the movie.
Niels Arestrup is compelling as the crudely powerful Cesar, whose power may be threatened. And Hichem Yacoubi is convincing as a figure who becomes hallucinatory and meaningful for Malik.
“A Prophet” is a French-Arabic-Corsican language film. It won the Grand Prize at Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign-language film.
French films are films with character, vitality and humanity. Some of my favorite films are French, from “Children of Paradise” (1944) to “Jules and Jim” (1962) to “The Clockmaker” (1973). “A Prophet” shares their esteemed attributes.
In “A Prophet” we are incarcerated in a powerful work of art.